Live Review

Gram Parsons Tribute - Universal Amphitheatre (Universal City, CA)

Various Artists on July 10, 2004

Why a Gram Parsons tribute concert now? Good question. There was no real specific reason for such a lofty event -- no anniversary of his birth or notorious death to wrap a big to-do around, and it could hardly be the result of a deprivation of tributes to, arguably, the inventor of country-rock. Not only have there been two noteworthy collections of standout artists covering Parsons' material in just over a decade -- 1993's indie-rock-minded Conmemorativo and 1999's marquee Return Of The Grievous Angel -- but his songs are celebrated on the stages of bars and clubs across the country on what is undoubtedly a nightly basis. Besides, it's not a stretch to say that a good number of the artists working today who fuse amply bittersweet tones with country, rock and soul into that thing currently called alt-country, especially those in Nudie sparkle and moppy 'dos, are but perennial walking, talking, singing tributes to Parsons as well. Not that we really need an excuse to honor the songs and impact of Gram Parsons. But, for the record, this show -- formally dubbed "Return To Sin City: A Tribute To Gram Parsons" -- was the brainchild of Parsons' daughter Polly, a woman who, for all practical purposes, didn't know her father and has spent much of her life coming to terms with the legacy that has shadowed her own biography. As the story goes, she considered the idea for some time and kicked the concept into high gear only after meeting Keith Richards two years ago and learning that the legendary Stone would participate in such an event for his long-lost rock 'n' twang 'n' Babylon running mate. Next thing you know, Southern California gets two nights of concerts (in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles) benefiting, most appropriately, the Musicians Assistance Program, something that might have helped Parsons if it existed in his time. The concerts boasted an enticing lineup of artists who, like Parsons, have forged careers making music that lives between the cracks of various genres. Performers included Richards, Norah Jones, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Dwight Yoakam, Raul Malo, Jay Farrar, Jim Lauderdale, John Doe, Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Kathleen Edwards, Kat Maslich (Eastmountainsouth), gospel-soul singer Susan Marshall, and the House Of Blues Gospel Choir. Among the backing musicians were James Burton and Al Perkins (both key Parsons collaborators), Marvin Etzioni, Tony Furtado, Eddie Perez, and a top-notch band of L.A. players dubbed the Sin City All-Stars. Yes, inevitably the Universal Amphitheatre show was but one massive group hug in the name of a style of American music that has been a cult favorite for some three decades now, and especially in the last ten years or so. If you sat down and scribbled your own list of alternative-country artists who you'd like to be featured at a such an event, chances are it would have been very similar, save maybe a Ryan Adams or a Mark Olson. It could not have been better conceived as a celebration of country rock and its fearless progenitor. (Save for one glaring absence: Emmylou Harris, an artist linked to the Parsons legacy more than any other via her role as his backup singer and dedicated performer of his songs in the years after his 1973 death. Harris also served as executive producer of the aforementioned 1999 tribute album. She had prior commitments, according to the concert promoters.) The basic approach: Each artist plays two songs either written by Parsons or famously covered by him, aided by the Sin City All-Stars. Best were those who colored the songs with their own singular brand of artistry, such as Malo, whose Orbison-meets-Vegas-meets-twang version of "Hot Burrito #1" was the first breathtaking moment of the night, reminding of the obvious: Man, can he sing. Other standouts included Jones' delicate and soulful take on "She"; Williams' parched, mesmerizing "A Song For You"; Farrar's husky "Drugstore Truck Driving Man" and "Devil In Disguise"; and Earle's gritty "Luxury Liner" and "My Uncle". For his part, Earle also managed to personalize his micro-set in ways you've grown to expect, including a reference to the Iraq War when introducing "My Uncle", a 1969 Parsons/Chris Hillman song about draft evasion. "If things keep going the way they're going," he offered, "there's gonna be another draft and this song will make sense." Yoakam was the lone artist who brought his own band along for the ride, affording the honky-tonk mainstay more tools to embrace his own vision on "Wheels" and "Sin City". It worked especially well on "Wheels", even without the freaked-out pedal steel that colors the original version. His take on "Sin City" was not nearly as successful, trading the song's inherent melodrama for some full-throttle roadhouse twang and an extended-jam ending -- neither of which served the song well. Having his own band would have helped My Morning Jacket's James. His versions of "Dark End Of The Street" and "Still Feeling Blue" felt neutered in this setting compared to the grand, reverb-rich sounds of his group. Still, James was singing two great songs, and thus it was hardly a failure. Ditto for Doe and Edwards and just about everyone else who took center stage to honor Parsons. Ultimately nearly everyone played second-fiddle to these timeless songs. Except perhaps Keith Richards. But how could he? The event's lone legitimate superstar caused the crowd to shudder the moment he walked onstage. "Another goodbye to another good friend," offered the guitar hero, his gray hair a tumbleweed, his bony torso exposed through a draping of jacket and shirt, his whole persona seeming like a Saturday Night Live parody. It doesn't matter than Keef can't sing to save his life -- think an emphysema sufferer with a toddler's sense (or lack) of key and melody -- his aura was huge, and his sense of happiness to be a part of the show was palpable. And when he and Jones launched into "Love Hurts", with Richards throwing an arm over his duet partner at various points throughout the song, it was pure sweetness and joy. The group hug was complete.